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Winter's Onset Endangers Pakistan Quake Survivors

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More than two months after the South Asia earthquake, the fate of over three million survivors is still a great concern for humanitarian aid organizations. Most of the survivors now have tents but not tents that protect against the heavy snows and extremely low temperatures in the Himalayan foothills. More than 73,000 people were killed in the earthquake, and aid officials warn that that number will rise unless survivors get adequate shelter. NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves spoke by telephone to international aid workers in Pakistan's quake zone, and he filed this report.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

United Nations officials have been raising the alarm about the risk to earthquake survivors for a while, but now they have some new numbers to back this up. They've done a survey of some 3,000 families who lost their homes and are facing the onset of winter with only tents to protect them. The findings are not encouraging. Darren Boisvert of the International Organization for Migration says the survey found three out of every four of these tents were inadequate.

Mr. DARREN BOISVERT (International Organization for Migration): They might not have had fly sheets, they might not have had tarps for the ground, they might not have had enough blankets in each tent. And the most disturbing thing for us and the most urgent need is blankets.

REEVES: Boisvert says the survey found an average of just two blankets per tent, a woeful shortfall given the size of the families involved. Tents usually have about seven or eight people crammed inside, a fact that Boisvert says is in itself worrying.

Mr. BOISVERT: It's also causing social problems. It's a culture that normally separates men and women as much as possible, and it separates families from other families. And people are living in very tight, camplike situations. So what we're finding is that some of the tensions are rising in these camps in these locations, and this is also a big concern that's growing.

REEVES: More than two months after the quake those helping the earthquake survivors face an operation of breathtaking proportions with many logistical problems. There is, for example, a shortage of corrugated iron needed to protect tents from heavy falls of snow. Mike Farque(ph) of Medecins Sans Frontieres says the quake also destroyed health and sanitation systems, placing traumatized and impoverished survivors at even more risk.

Mr. MIKE FARQUE (Medecins San Frontieres): Our concerns at the moment is that because these people are vulnerable and because the winter months are, in fact, in place now, there is a real potential for public health problems; respiratory infections, for example. Also in the camps, where water and sanitation could become an issue, there is the potential for communicable diseases.

REEVES: The number of people caught up in the aftermath of the disaster is huge. Officials say an estimated 400,000 people are scattered around the mountains above 5,000 feet and that 2.8 million people are below that. Many of those on higher ground were expected to come down to lower-lying areas as the winter approached, but they've proved reluctant to leave their land and livestock. Farhana Faruqi Stocker of Oxfam says so far there's been no big migration down from the hills.

Ms. FARHANA FARUQI STOCKER (Oxfam): Many, many people now seem to have made the decision of not coming down, which basically means that we would have to ensure--the assistance community and the government have to ensure a regular supply line of food and other provisions over the winter months, without which survival for many, many families and communities would become a difficult challenge.

REEVES: Fears that large numbers of lives would be lost to cold or disease haven't so far materialized, partly, say aid agency workers, because recently the weather's been kind. But Stocker says the risk is still there.

Ms. STOCKER: Based on what we know now, it is quite apparent that if in the next three and in some places six weeks we do not step up, very seriously scale up the assistance which is required for people in ...(unintelligible), the risks to their lives are very serious, especially to children, to lactating mothers and to old people.

Mr. BOISVERT: We need 2.4 million blankets. We need 200,000 tarpaulins. We need 170,000 plastic sheets.

REEVES: Darren Boisvert of the International Organization for Migration reels off a list of urgently needed supplies. He warns if these items don't come, the results could be very serious.

Mr. BOISVERT: The nights get extremely cold. You're looking at maybe minus 10 degrees Celsius. And the problem is that some of these locations will receive up to 10 to 15 feet of snow. And if people don't have clothes and they don't have blankets and they don't have access to a warm room, we are facing a serious humanitarian problem.

REEVES: It's a cliche, but aid workers in Pakistan's quake zone insist it's nonetheless true: They really are, they say, in a race against time. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.